Gene Swindoll, Gene's Page

Streaking Back into SEC Season

Quick, against which SEC opponent has Mississippi State scored the most consecutive victories since the first post-war Ford rolled out?

Sure it's a set-up and knock-out softball sort of question. The ongoing and hopefully continuing six-year streak against Kentucky is Mississippi State’s longest in modern memory. Well, unless memory includes that eight-year, seven-game stretch of success against Auburn from 1941-48 modern…and if yours does, congratulations for still being with us! Or is it sympathies for all the unsuccessful Bulldog seasons suffered-through?

Either way, this week resumes what has been Dan Mullen’s more consistent series in Starkville. And Lexington for that matter. State has beaten Wildcat teams with let’s see…four starting quarterbacks with their inherent offensive preferences, the same number different defensive coordinators, and I’m-not-gonna-count how many combinations of linemen on either side.

Whatever else changes, scoreboard results have not. So much so that this series accounts for just over one-quarter of Mullen’s SEC wins. Roll that realization around a bit and think yeah, maybe Mississippi State did come out best when permanent inter-Division series were assigned after all.

Now. Apply none of the above to Saturday. Anyone assuming Mullen and MSU can routine their way through this weekend should put down the cowbell and pay attention. What looks on paper like a Dog-dominated series has been a heckuva lot more competitive on the field. Need I remind that if Turtle Holmes doesn’t just field but return that on-sides kickoff for a fluke touchdown, Kentucky could have ended Mississippi State’s first-ever game with a #1 ranking the wrong way?

There hasn’t been a really comfortable win in the streak, making the average MSU margin of just under ten points deceptive. Very deceptive. Wildcats clubs have come increasingly close to snapping the streak and are bound to do so someday.

Like, this Saturday?

Shouldn’t happen, but then the 2007 Bulldogs weren’t supposed to win in Lexington either against what was Kentucky’s last really competitive SEC club. Which by the way sends me down two parallel detour thoughts.

One: while Mississippi State’s rise to competitiveness has come in the face of the SEC West assuming near-almighty prowess, Kentucky hasn’t been able to take advantage of the East’s extended down cycle. Or not so far, these Wildcats seem to have a squad suited for their remaining schedule and if they end up second on that side it shouldn’t be shocking.

Two: we owe Kentucky a quiet ‘thank you’ for winning in 2008. Otherwise Dan Mullen might well not be here. Sure the Egg Bowl made the change easier, but I’ve the best possible source that the Kentucky loss set the change in motion—i.e. a sideline conversation held immediately after State’s field goal for the win clanked the wrong way, we’ll leave it at that.

Back to the present. Setting aside the all-streaks-will-end angle, aspects to this matchup make me question the opening Vegas line of 11.5. Mullen has made his admiration of Patrick Towles clear for years, even before he took over at quarterback. Tall, tough, with still-surprising speed, he’d fit a Mullen offense very well. Draw your own Nick Fitzgerald comparisons if you wish. So would a Jeff Driskel come to think of it. Anyway, a veteran quarterback with a gradually-growing skill group to use is reason for concern because there is going to be that game that everything falls together…just as it too-nearly did a year ago in the Commonwealth.

I watched last week’s Auburn game of course and yeah, if that’s the same scheme seen there ought be lots of openings for between-the-numbers passes and quarterback keepers. Stress on ‘if’ as surely Kentucky adapts for a known quantity like Dak Prescott. In his two starts against Wildcat clubs Prescott is 41-of-67 for three scores and 485 yards. Oh, and six sacks. That’s a lot of unintended contact and indicates Kentucky’s coaches know how to get after a run/pass quarterback.

The best counter is a big running attack of course. Which is Mississippi State’s ongoing gridiron mystery, of course. I confess complicity in the spring chorus claiming this Bulldog backfield would be the most versatile and matchup-able group since Emory Bellard’s two good years.

Wrong.

At least, wrong so far and best we can tell for the rest of this season. This doesn’t mean writing off the group at all. It does mean State is stuck in some sort of no-Dog’s-land right now in what backs to roll out there. The answer is not nearly so simple as most of the fall choral claim, either.

True, we know by now the two veterans aren’t it. There are a couple of upcoming matchups which Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway can produce against, I do still think. Emphasis on ‘matchups’. Neither is going to get it done against fast AND physical defenses though, and at times one wonders about basic field vision, if they are just plain seeing what is there to either angle. Put another way, increasingly it seems some apologies are due Bulldog blockers for lack of ground game results.

At the same time, for all their (also increasingly) evident abilities, State can’t just entrust everything to the two younger backs. They fumble. I know Mullen’s first statement in today’s presser was about Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee not having all the pass protections down yet, and that’s bound to be true.

But that could also be overcome with a little tweaking or something. What can’t be is not taking care of the football. Williams’ fumble at Texas A&M was the back breaker, and Lee was lucky his fumble last Saturday rolled out of bounds. The point is, much as we praise pure running potential, practicality demands a ball carrier to earn basic trust he’ll protect the ball he carries no matter what else happens.

Now when that does happen, one or both the better-rounded backs will take over. Until then? Maybe Prescott runs more himself. More likely he stays with what is working, throwing to alllll those targets. I actually think it is getting overlooked just how proficient State’s receivers have become. They aren’t just getting open, they are catching most anything thrown their way. Seriously, great grabs have become more norm than exceptional this season. Why not keep doing what works?

Because, yes I know, it’s coming. The Saturday (or Thursday) when Mississippi State must hand the football to somebody who will go get four or five yards. Regularly. Reliably. And also remember, as well as Prescott has played against Kentucky…it was Josh Robinson running wild who set the game’s tone. Nope, not gonna re-open that can of crawlers about Josh’s November sulk for not getting one more run and three more yards. Let bygones be bygones.

The present point being if Mississippi State doesn’t want a winning streak over Kentucky, and more so chances for a good bowl berth to become bygones, the offense needs some fast balancing. Yes, the Bulldogs can walk off Scott Field bowl-eligible again, and for a record sixth-straight winter at that.

They can also exit with streak and pride busted. Mullen made that point himself Monday, of the modest margins Mississippi State has on returning to SEC action.

“If we play well, we have a chance to win the rest of our games. If we play poorly we won’t win any of them.”

Oh, and if you care…Ford’s first post-war car was the still-classic 1949 model. No, I wasn’t there, wise guys.


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